Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Why are feminists like me being labelled ‘far right’?

In what would no doubt come as a shock to great feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, Sylvia Pankhurst and Simone de Beauvoir, arguing for sexual equality today makes you ‘far right’ and a purveyor of ‘hate speech’. Forget Hitler, Mussolini, or even Enoch Powell. According to the London Public Library in Ontario, Canada, it’s people like me, defenders of women’s sex-based rights, who lean perilously close to the wrong end of the political spectrum.

When I say ‘people like me’ I actually mean me. Back in May this year, I was invited by the Canadian Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship to give their annual public lecture. Traditionally, this is held off campus and attendance is open to the general public. Previously, the London Public Library has been happy to provide a venue. I submitted the title of my lecture – Sex, Gender, and the Limits of Free Speech on Campus – and looked forward to the occasion.

Only then, in a move that proves irony is not dead, my talk on free speech was censored. Upon seeing the title of my talk, managers at the London Public Library decided they needed to review my work. I’m guessing this means someone entered my name into Google and watched a few YouTube clips. This thorough investigation led managers to conclude that, if allowed to go ahead, my appearance would violate library policies on workplace and sexual harassment and would pose a risk of property damage or personal injury. And that was that: no further explanation was forthcoming. Computer said no.

In a move that proves irony is not dead, my talk on free speech was censored

Now, thanks to the persistence of journalist Andrew Lawton from Canada’s online publication, True North, the behind the scenes conversations that led to my cancellation have been revealed. Freedom of Information requests have shown that, unusually, the booking for my lecture was directed to the very top: library boss Michael Ciccone. In an email to colleagues, Ciccone declared, ‘She’s definitely controversial and would draw protests and attention. She considered (sic) a Terf and leans far-right without totally going there.’ Quite what it means to ‘lean far-right’ but ‘without totally going there’ is anyone’s guess. But it certainly sounds like something that would horrify my revolutionary communist younger-self.

Clearly unsure as to whether he could simply ban me from speaking, Ciccone sought advice. He emailed other library heads to ask, ‘Has anyone else received this request for a room booking?’ before stating: ‘The author appears to be of the Megan Murphy (sic) ilk.’ Meghan Murphy, as Spectator readers will know, is the exiled-Canadian founder of Feminist Current who was banned from Twitter after she tweeted that ‘men aren’t women’. Back in 2019, Murphy spoke at the Toronto Public Library against a backdrop of hundreds of protesters and, since then, she has been stopped from speaking at venues across North America. If there is a Meghan Murphy ‘ilk’, then I am proud to be a member.

The emails continued. One staff member argued it was ‘Tricky to see how we can say no,’ to the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, ‘especially when we hosted them in 2019.’ She suggested I be allowed to speak but was ‘made aware of the code of conduct/ no hate speech.’ Later, having ruled out the possibility of refusing the booking on a technicality, correspondents returned to the theme of hate speech once more: ‘Looking at her work though, it’s hard not to imagine that it could test the bounds of hate speech.’ And with that damning indictment of nothing I had actually said, the ‘trickiness’ of saying ‘no’ vanished.

It seems that in Canada today, if you are of the ‘Meghan Murphy ilk’ and think that men are not women, and are prepared to argue in defence of women’s sex-based rights, you can expect to be labelled ‘far-right’ and accused of ‘hate speech’.

But this is not quite the end of the story. Lawton has also uncovered the fact that, in a foreshadowing of today’s events, the London Public Library was considering another room booking request alongside mine. It was from Amer Zahr, an American comedian noted for his anti-Israel rhetoric. When Zahr’s appearance in Ontario was criticised, the comedian quipped: ‘They say I have supported terrorists. This is not accurate. I have never supported Netanyahu.’

Despite calls from the Jewish community to stop his appearance, library staff worried that cancelling Zahr could insult the city’s Muslim community. So, to counteract this possible offence, the library’s operations director contacted Zahr’s manager and asked: ‘Is there a rebuttal statement […] that we can use to address the concerns listed below?’. It seems they colluded to combat criticism and actively sought out support for the comedian’s appearance.

So there we have it. Support women’s rights and you’ll be branded ‘far-right’, accused of spreading hate speech and stopped from speaking. But spend your time denouncing Israel and your appearance will be welcomed and your platform secured. Canada: you’ve lost the plot.

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